‘My Tongue Swallowing the Taste of Home Soil’: On Filipino Food, Family, and Identity

WASHINGTON DC - September 5TH: Sisig from Purple Patch shot on September 5th, 2017 in Washington DC. (Photo by Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

At The Margins — the online magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) — writer, filmmaker, and photographer Jill Damatac explores identity, colonalism, and memory through the lens of family and Filipino food. In “Dirty Kitchen,” Damatac shares two recipes — tinola, a ginger chicken soup; and sisig, a diced-up pork dish seasoned with calamansi juice, onions, and chili peppers — and weaves cooking instructions throughout sharp, sensory prose.

On the taste of tinola, and memories of her childhood:

When I was little, before I departed the sunny, Pacific chaos of our world for the chilly, Atlantic silence of the new world, we often had tinola for Sunday lunch at Lolo and Lola’s house, where I would spend weekends. In the early mornings, Lolo and I would stroll the barrio streets to buy fresh pandesal from the local bakery, me skipping along in mumbled song with the roosters, him punching the air with calisthenic fists, just as he had done with the American GIs during the war. In Pennsylvania, where he had followed us a year after we left, he would walk me to and from school, the two of us passing a bag of sticky, sour sampalok between us, spitting out the smooth, shiny seeds into our palms. He always wore his pristinely white Reeboks and sometimes his ten-gallon cowboy hat. I still remember my shame on the days he would arrive in that hat.

It was during those early years in the land of the free and the home of the brave that I first felt shame, which is a hunger for pride, and loneliness, which is a hunger for belonging. Tinola’s plain, clear-brothed, ginger-laced embrace helped to sate these hungers, my tongue swallowing the taste of home soil.

Sauté the garlic, ginger, and onion in oil in a large pot, stirring until soft. 

On sisig, but also colonialism, home, and identity:

“You want to know why my sisig is special?” Tito asked me recently over a sizzling plate. We were sharing a meal next to the volcano, Taal. I had just returned to the islands after twenty-two years of undocumented American exile.

“Because I make it with pork belly. Usually it’s made with the cheap parts of the pig, ha. Why should we eat only cheap parts? And love. I cook it with love.”

Sisig is no longer made with just the discarded cuts, but its poisonous effects remain. The Americans are gone, but their imperious scars linger. No longer trapped by our colonizers, we trap ourselves. We transform to survive, but we still bear the boiled, charred, gristled remnants of our past. I will continue to exist in a hungry space between longing and belonging, for my body, exported from its country of birth, deported from its country of growth, now has only sense and memory to call home.

Serve immediately, using two large spoons to stir in the eggs to cook. Enjoy with garlic fried rice. 

Read the essay